Meanwhile in Baghdad

—Chapter 3—


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The black wolf and the deer stood with their hands on their hips like in a painting, looking into the car’s engine on the side of the desert road. It was a beater. The badger selling it said it wouldn’t drive much more than a hundred miles, and he was right. It had gotten the wolf and the deer most of the way to San Samarra, then died fifteen miles outside the city limits.

The wolf took one hand off his hip and pointed to a plastic tube. “What if that thing—”

“I don’t think so,” the deer said, knocking the hood closed. “Unless you were about to use a real word of automotive terminology? Something that shows a little more understanding of how cars work than what if and that thing?”

The wolf and the deer began walking. It was different to the wolf’s nighttime walks. Still a desert, but this time gruesomely hot. This time the wolf’s thick coat weighted him down, and made him pant after only the first few minutes. At least the car had had air conditioning.

The black wolf was enduring. He could handle heat. By the end of the first mile, he had stopped himself from panting. In through the nose, out through the mouth. More forceful than he normally would breathe, maybe. But he played it off fine.

They walked on the shoulder. The deer walked on the road, his dress shoes hitting on the dark grey pavement. The black wolf padded through the sand. It felt a little more familiar, after all of his desert walks. This was not, by any measure, the same desert. This one had sand blowing against the back of his neck, cutting into his fur, getting stuck; he brushed it out occasionally, but only when he felt he really had to. Not when it was a small bother; only when it was a matter of actually scraping into the skin. This desert had cars flying by them at eighty miles per hour; they drove by fast enough to blow more sand up at the wolf’s neck, and slow enough to notice and judge him if he brushed it out. This desert didn’t have a visible moon; this desert had Helios. This desert had a Sun. The wolf wouldn’t give the sun the courtesy of looking at it, much less giving it a howl.

With every minute, the sun set further into the wolf’s field of view.

The deer was the first to break silence. “What’s the deal with you? Are you a tough guy or what?”

The wolf wasn’t quite sure how to take that.

“I mean in fairness, you probably are a tough guy. I’m not saying it’s an act. You’ve got big muscles, you’re stoic. I’m sure your boyfriend was super into it. Maybe wasn’t as into how emotionally unavailable you are, but still, two out of three ain’t—”

“Knock it off,” the wolf said.

“Oh I’m sorry, knock what off?” asked the deer.

“Acting like you know everything,” the wolf said. “Stop doing that.”

“Am I annoying you?”

“No.”

“Offending you?”

“No.”

“Then I think I’ll keep going,” the deer said. He didn’t smile. There was no smile on the deer’s mutilated lip. “Your boyfriend, let’s find out more about him, huh? He’s the first thing you brought up to me. First chance you got when we started talking in the hotel, before you were even through the doorway, your mind went to him. He’s hurt you too: you didn’t like it when I brought up that you two aren’t together and that maybe it was your fault. I mean, I don’t know if you broke up before or after you became a murderer. Let’s keep talking, maybe I’ll fucking figure it out. What I want to know is, have I been wrong yet? About anything? Anything at all I’ve said today? Because I feel like I’ve been right since I woke up this morning, and when I woke up this morning, you can be goddamn sure that right was the last thing I expected to feel.”

The wolf kept care not to bare his teeth.

“Ask me one,” the deer said.

“Ask you one what?”

“A question, tough guy. Ask me something.”

“You don’t know who you are. What am I supposed to ask you?”

“I don’t care, anything,” the deer requested. “Jog my memory.”

“Your name,” the wolf said.

“No idea. Next one.”

“Address.”

“Nope.”

“Address of your home when you were a kid.”

The deer thought for a second. “Nothing.”

“Current president.”

“Valentine,” the deer answered, correctly.

“Junior or senior?”

“Neither, just Valentine,” the deer answered, correct again. “Nice try though.”

“Movie where the guy has a chainsaw for a hand.”

“Evil Dead or Army of Darkness. I can’t remember which one he gets the chainsaw hand in. I don’t think it’s because of the amnesia.”

“Movie with the line, ‘Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father, prepare to die.’”

“Princess Bride. Christ, why did I see a movie with a title like that?” the deer said, smiling. “I feel like I was probably a badass. Princess Bride is not badass.”

“Inigo is pretty badass,” the wolf defended. “I watched that one with my boyfriend when we were in middle school. His mom had it on VHS. He gave me a black eye reenacting the sword fight between Inigo and Westley. Did you like the movie?”

The deer paused, and very slowly nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I think I did. Ask me another one. We’re getting somewhere.”

“Favorite band?”

“I don’t hate ACDC. I don’t think I was much of a music person.”

“Favorite movie?”

“The Departed.”

“First girlfriend.”

The deer opened his mouth to speak. Nothing.

The wolf and the deer continued walking, talking movies. The deer liked suspense thrillers. He was good at figuring them out. The wolf liked movies that made him think. Movies where there was no answer, explicitly. He’d hated trying to follow The Departed. Hadn’t even made it to most of the scenes that the deer wanted to talk about.

“You know I still think you’re a pretty terrible person,” the deer said, out of the blue. They had been talking about The Usual Suspects. Apparently the subject had changed. “It’s not even what you did. DUI is a dumb mistake, but it sounds like a one-off dumb mistake. School shooting, I mean, the unpopular kid revenge fantasy is real. But I don’t think you’ve changed much since all of it happened. You’re working on it. You want to make up for what you did, hence why we’re here, I get that. But I’m pretty sure that you don’t think you did anything wrong. I’m pretty sure you still think that you’re a good person.”

The wolf breathed in the scent of the wounded deer, and exhaled through his nose. “At least I know what I did.”

The deer nodded. “Nice shot.”

The wolf and the deer had walked five miles by the time a car pulled over to offer them a ride.

 

 

Rice pulled over on the side of the road. He looked a little different than when he had talked to Joey in the pharmacy. He had grown a short beard. He got ink too, settling in for the long hunt. Band names and symbols of Punk, ripped right from the graffiti in the gas station on Brackney Street. He made it a point to track down the same artist who gave Jace and Nick and Sharyn their tattoos all those years ago. It was worth the effort. It showed. His body was a tribute to Punk Rock. On his forehead, he tattooed the symbol for anarchy.

He had spent more than a year tracking incidents of rebellion. Keeping up with the new Punk bands, introducing himself, asking about their influences—what made you want to play a genre that most people would call dead? What bands do you like? Where are all of you from? You don’t sound like you’re from City, Town, or Suburb X.

The search had lead nowhere. Rice was on a new lead. A better one. It lead straight into San Samarra. On the way, he found it in his heart to do a good deed; he’d been hitchhiking before, and he figured it must have been harder to get a ride in 2013 than it ever was for him growing up. No trust anymore. No brotherhood. Rice threw the car in park and stepped out into the desert sun, putting on his sunglasses as he stood.

Strangely, the hitchhikers didn’t come any closer. One had stopped the other. Rice started walking towards them. He understood how he looked, decked out in leather and a pure blue mohawk that was probably dyed that color, not the least of the reasons including that it wasn’t the same color as his beard.

In an effort to look friendlier, Rice took his sunglasses back off and smiled.

His smiled dropped when he recognized Drake Reddick, the one who had escaped scot-free from that car crash back in Minnesota. Rice put his sunglasses back on, opened his car’s trunk, and reached inside for his rifle.

“On your knees!” Rice ordered, walking closer to the two.

They complied, Drake doing so much more obediently than his friend, who was slower to get down.

“Hands above your heads!” Rice ordered next.

Again, both of them complied. Rice went to each of them, patting them down for weapons. He pulled two batteries from one of their pockets, but otherwise found nothing.

“What’s your name?” Rice asked, pointing the rifle at the man he didn’t recognize. Rice was standing in front of the two, a couple paces away.

“I don’t know,” the man answered. Rice noticed the fresh stitches on the man’s lower lip.

“Bullshit!” Rice shouted, and fixed his sights on Drake. Gesturing to the other man, he asked, “What’s his name?”

“He doesn’t know,” Drake repeated. “And I’m sorry. I remember you: Rice O’. I’m sorry for—”

“Shut the hell up,” Rice ordered. He reached into his pocket, and pulled out a phone, balancing the rifle in his other arm. He’d never dialed 911 before. As it rang, he reflected on that. He might have had plenty of reasons to in his lifetime, but Punk and authority were opposing factions. It took a big fucking deal for either side to cross that barrier and ask for help from the other.

The operator picked up the other end.

 

 

Sand grit against the man’s knees and dress shoes.

“Friend of yours?” the man asked Drake.

Drake shook his head. “I used to be a fan of his band.”

The punk held the phone away from his ear, and gestured between both of them with the rifle. “Hey, both of you shut up.”

The man pressed his teeth together. He could feel that he was getting severely sunburned from being out for so long. It didn’t feel good on his open wound. The goal then was to steal the punk’s car and drive to a pharmacy where he could get some aloe vera or any other sunburn remedy, and an inane amount of pain killers.

“I’m on the highway East out of San Samarra,” the punk said, “and I am pointing a rifle at the head of Drake Reddick. No, not like that: there’s a warrant out for his arrest. Look it up. Then fucking google it. I won’t kill him if you get here before he tries to run. I’m at…”

The punk took the phone away from his ear again, and looked past the man and Drake for some kind of exit sign or mile marker, but found none, because he soon turned in the other direction. The man was off his knees and into the punk’s back full force before the punk could report that he was near mile marker eleven. The man yanked the rifle from the punk’s hands, but the punk held on, a hell of a lot stronger than the man would’ve thought given the punk’s age. Late forties at the very youngest. The punk headbutt and the man jolted back. The punk kneed the man in the chest and the man fell over. The punk fired a round right next to the man’s head. The man couldn’t hear all of the words the punk said afterwards, through the ringing, but toward the end he made out the phrase “Warning Shot” and other shouted expletives.

The man looked at the crater formed in the sand by the bullet, not more than two inches from his face. Jesus. The punk wouldn’t think for a second

that the man would attack so shortly after that but he did, kicking out backwards and tripping the punk into the sand so that the anarchy symbol on his forehead landed directly on his own fired round, not lethal anymore, but ironic, and that could hurt too once the punk had time to reflect on it. While the punk was still falling the man had taken the rifle from him and now stood on top of him, one dress shoe digging deep into the punk’s back

and then knocking the butt of the rifle into the punk’s head.

Drake was off his knees and approaching the man by this point, but the man turned the rifle on Drake’s chest, and Drake stopped.

The man inhaled, exhaled, and spoke: “I want you to remember that right now, in this moment, I am choosing not to kill you. I am choosing not to wait here for the police and turn you in for the warrant money. It’s because I think you have changed after all.”

Drake turned the punk over onto his back, checked for a pulse and breathing, and later reported that he had found both. He took the punk’s phone, and said to the 911 operator, “Mile eleven,” before the man could snatch it out of his hands, hang up, and put it on airplane mode. The man took the rifle and threw it in the back seat before he took the wheel, with Drake riding passenger.

 

 

Rice woke up to the sound of cars screaming past his head. His head was a glass jar cracked in half. He reached back and felt blood. Purple blood, from mixing with the blue dye of his mohawk. He tried to sit up but was nauseous and couldn’t handle the movement. He inched his hand under his head again and probed, feeling a wetness—blood—but no massive gaping wound. No bone. It was a question of will then. If nothing physically was stopping Rice from standing up, Lord help him, he would stand the fuck up.

And he did. He got up to sitting, vomited to his side—can’t ruin such a nice Cramps shirt, not that barfing on it would make much difference—and then stood the rest of the way, teetering on his feet. He stumbled towards his car. His car. Where was… “FUCK!” Rice shouted into the sky. He looked down, almost falling over from such a drastic change in perspective (something’s not right) and saw that his rifle was also taken. Phone too. Rice stumbled up out of the sand and onto the road.

There wasn’t traffic. There were cars, but very spaced out, none of them competing for place. Rice waved out at the first car, and it screamed by him. He shouted back, calling the driver a cuntfucker whore and then stumbling into the road, standing on the dashed white line between the only two oncoming lanes of traffic. The next car braked and tried to swerve around Rice, but he jumped in its path. A rib might have cracked on the hood. He heard something crack, but didn’t know if it was a car part or a him part. He was already cracked. His brain leaked through the back of his skull, and holy God did he feel every oozing second. Rice removed himself from the hood and got in the passenger seat.

“Drive me somewhere you motherfucker or so help me God you will wish you’d run me the fuck over and never looked back.”

The driver’s hands shook on the wheel as he went. Rice considered that maybe he’d been too assertive, but didn’t spend too much time on that.

Rice didn’t ask to go to a hospital. He would go to one afterwards, and save himself a trip. He gave the driver directions to the outskirts of San Samarra, where a storage facility butted against the open desert, and then got out of the car. The driver sped away before Rice’s door had finished closing.

Rice walked out into the desert, about a hundred feet. The sun was coming down, the underside of the blazing circle just touching the horizon, flattening against it, the world around him melting as his own head did the same.

Decades ago, Johnny Hick had left La Meseta, walking away from Brackney and into the desert. After a fruitless year of trying to track The Immortal, Rice had decided to take a different route. He’s gotten a map and a ruler and a marker, and he drew a straight line out of Brackney, exactly as The Immortal had left.

In the distance, Rice saw a man approaching. He had his rifle slung across his chest, and a jagged skull for a face.


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© Ray Underscore Thompson, November 16, 2016